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Assessing Jon Huntsman Jr. and the Republican Party: Is 2020 his year?

Published: Saturday, Dec. 29 2012 1:33 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman takes the stage with his family during a primary night rally at the Black Brimmer restaurant on January 10, 2012 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Former presidential candidate and Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr.'s best shot at the White House may not come until 2020, a political scholar at a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank said.

For now, Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute told the Deseret News, Huntsman, 52, needs to continue speaking out against the Republican Party's sharp shift to the right and hope the GOP takes the criticism to heart.

“The biggest problem he's got, I'm afraid, is the Republican Party itself,” said Ornstein, co-author of a recent book suggesting Republican extremists have all but “declared war on the government.”

He said it's not yet clear whether any moderate GOP presidential contender “can bring the party back to something close to a center-right party as a opposed to a radical right-wing party.”

Ornstein said he told Huntsman earlier this year that his hope of securing the GOP presidential nomination for 2012 was over when he defended climate change during a primary debate.

“That was it,” Ornstein said. “When you basically have a party that denies science, that takes the hardest of hard lines on immigration, that is unwilling to move a millimeter to deal with the ‘fiscal cliff' problem, then you have a party that is not a Jon Huntsman-type party.”

Huntsman, who left his post as U.S. ambassador to China last year to launch a presidential bid that ended after a weak showing in January's New Hampshire primary, has said little about his political future, describing himself instead as focusing on a variety of new roles.

Those include speaking engagements; as well as serving distinguished fellow at The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank; and as chairman of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. He is also associated with No Labels, a national organization that promotes bipartisanship.

The twice-elected Utah governor recently told “The Ripon Forum,” published by a national pro-GOP organization, that Republicans have no future “without being a reality-based, solutions-oriented party” and that no agenda can be advanced “as long as compromise is seen as something akin to treason” within the party.

Ornstein said Huntsman has “great potential” as an opinion leader.

“He has, first of all, substantial name recognition. Take him out of those presidential debates, put him on television or put him in front of a podium, he's a very attractive, persuasive person. He's got credibility,” he said.

The GOP's future

Republicans may not be ready to pay serious attention to Huntsman's message unless the party takes a beating in the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race.

“If things go bad in 2014 and 2016, Huntsman may be able to make a better case,” said Tim Hagle, an active Republican and a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

Until then, Hagle said, Republicans are likely to stick to their positions on fiscal and social issues, which often leave little room for compromise.

After Mitt Romney's loss in the November election, Hagle said, any re-examination of the party and what it stands for is “certainly understandable and appropriate. But it doesn't mean it was all wrong.”

University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said political parties are slow to change. There's also the possibility that the party will choose to veer even more to the right, he said.

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